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Lessons—The Suburbs Vote for Public Education

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MARCH 15, 2000]

The Suburbs Vote for Public Education

By Richard Rothstein

Between a booming economy and reports of growing disillusion with public schools, you’d expect private school enrollment to soar. Yet the proportion of students in private schools has been falling nationwide.

Certainly, it’s easy to get the idea that more parents now choose private schools. Advocates of tax-funded private education often suggest that vouchers are inevitable, because more parents now “vote with their feet” to abandon public schools. Even some public education supporters believe there has been a shift to private schooling. Recently, Gov. Gray Davis of California proposed scholarships for public school students who perform well, a program critics contend would mostly aid the well-off. Not true, Governor Davis said, because nowadays few affluent students attend public schools.

The reality is otherwise. Only about 15 percent of children from the highest-earning fifth of families were at private schools in 1997, down slightly from 1979. At the other end, few poor children (those from the lowest-earning fifth of families) ever attended private schools, and this percentage has also dropped. As for children from the middle three-fifths, here too the private school share has fallen.

We hear a lot about charter schools, but their enrollment is still less than 1 percent of American students. Home schooling is apparently growing, but numbers are small, relative to the public system. In contrast, polls show Americans praise the mostly traditional, mostly suburban public schools their children attend. Only when surveys ask about schools generally does satisfaction fall, perhaps because impressions don’t come from direct experience.

The decline in private school percentages partly results from fewer parochial students as Roman Catholic families have moved from urban ethnic enclaves to suburbs. But even expensive independent schools enroll surprisingly few students. About 4 percent of children from high-income families are in nonreligious private schools, up only a fraction from 1979.

A mistaken impression of gains by private schools may stem from accounts of a small but opinion-shaping group of affluent parents, living in areas like Manhattan, the Hyde Park section of Chicago, and Adams-Morgan in Washington. They do choose private education, unlike most in the middle class who seek better public schools by moving to suburbs filled with similar families.

But in truth, few parents can really discern “good” schools that help students stretch their potential. Realtors point to test scores and college admission rates, but students from literate families test well even if a school’s instruction adds little to how they would perform in any setting. A school’s socioeconomic makeup can predict average test scores with startling accuracy. Some suburban schools are unusually effective, but it’s hard to tell which ones.

Nonetheless, moving to a suburb with high test scores is rational, because peers are important. Children tend to excel more when surrounded by others whose families expect academic success. In neighborhoods where most children lack this support, performance can lag even with the best instruction.

Middle-class movement to suburbs with “better” schools is accelerating. Across the nation, more workers with city jobs now commute from suburbs, where they send their children to public schools.

An exception is a growing class of college-educated couples living in central cities. Though few compared with suburbanites, their numbers are increasing. Some may willingly trade access to suburban public schools for the growing amenities of city living.

Yet their urban neighborhood schools enroll many relatively low-scoring poor children. Teachers may be effective, but they are preoccupied with coaching basic skills that middle-class children take for granted. There is less peer pressure to aim for admission to Ivy League universities. So affluent parents conclude that these schools are inadequate, and try for private placements.

Many who now choose urban lifestyles attended suburban public schools when they were young. Their new neighborhood schools, filled with low achievers, are unlike those they recall from childhood, so these city dwellers easily conclude that public schools used to be better. But the quality of middle-class suburban schools has not declined. What’s new is the presence of affluent families in poor people’s neighborhoods.

These high-income urban parents face a difficult dilemma.

Should they send their children to neighborhood public schools that lack peer influences to raise achievement, or seek private schools filled with students whose families are like theirs? However they resolve this, their quandary shouldn’t obscure the continuing allegiance of most middle-class families to suburban public education.

If Americans now “vote with their feet,” they typically do so by moving toward public schools, not away from them.

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